Black Music Matters Festival

Ralph Stanley II

Pretty Girls, City Lights – 2000 (Rebel)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

CDs by Ralph Stanley II

It's a plain fact: oil and water don't mix. But they sure look pretty together, swirling around each others' edges, exploring the corners and boundaries where one ends and one begins. In the music of Ralph Stanley II, hard-edged honky tonk and bluegrass dance side-by-side. They don't mix - but the struggle between the two sets off some interesting sparks.

In one corner is bluegrass. Ralph Stanley II (or "Two," as he's called) is backed by the Clinch Mountain Boys, his father Ralph Stanley's crack ensemble. With the elder Stanley's trebly mountain banjo leading, the Boys provide fine, invigorating support. But when set against Two's vocals, however, they seem a bit stiff. Here's the conflict: Two's voice is pure, honky-tonkin' country. His smooth baritone is the polar opposite of his father's soaring tenor. Supple, warm, and infused with a natural dynamic sense, Two's singing is simply marvelous. Sure, he sounds a heck of a lot like Keith Whitley, but what better role model is there?

In the long run, this record may be seen as a transitional work of a talented, assured artist. Right now, it's a neat clash between two influences. As Two learns to better blend them, his artistry will blossom. In the meantime, enjoy the singing and enjoy the playing. One day, Two will fill in the spaces between.